By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
The pogo stick behavior of the thermometer has reflected the indecisive nature of the jet stream during the opening month of 2017. True it has been nicer to wear short sleeves in January, but swatting mosquitos seemed a bit odd at the start of the new year in north Florida.
Still, many of the plants remained dormant because of the lack of daylight hours. The earth tone browns and muted greens created a subdued atmosphere in most of Wakulla County.
Luckily, there is a non-native shrub brightening the home gardens and commercial landscapes locally. Camellias, native to eastern and southern Asia, bloom in north Florida’s “dead of winter”.
The camellia genus is known internationally for its large and profuse blooms which examples are now present in gardens worldwide. The approximately 300 individual species in this genus provided the working material to create over 3,000 recorded hybrids which make colorful additions to most any winter landscapes on this part of the planet.
The two best known species in the southeastern U.S. are Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. Both can produce red, pink and white blooms during the winter when few other colorful horticultural options are available.
These cool season bloomer are better suited to flourish under the protective canopy of trees or close to structures. While local frost events have little to no effect on the camellia’s foliage, the flowers and buds can be damaged.
Camellias are evergreens, and their height and width depend on the species. Their simple leaves are relatively thick with serrated edges and have a glossy surface.
The japonicas grow much larger, approximately 20 feet in height, of the two locally common species and are often seen as specimens in the landscape. Sasanquas are more commonly used as foundation plants or hedges.
Both species are well adapted to acidic soils with high levels of organic matter. This requirement is a challenge in much of the southern part of Wakulla County, but homeowners can amend growing zones to improve the chances of success.
Planting sites should be heavily modified with peat moss and/or compost composed of oak leaves and other acidic sources such as coffee grounds. Mulch should be liberally used in the root zone to help retain moisture and regulate the soil temperature.
Camellias are heavy water users and will fall victim to droughts if left without supplemental irrigation. Their first year is especially critical as the plants become acclimated to their surroundings.
These early season bloomers are capable of good growth rates until they reach maturity. This feature is profoundly dependent upon the camellia being in the right location with all the nutrients and moisture required.
This plant is accepting of pruning, and some example of camellia topiary exist. The time to prune is a few weeks after the blooming season is complete.
Very late pruning, if properly done, will not injure the plant but will reduce the next season’s blooms. This is a common trait of many local ornamental plants used in landscapes.
February is typically the coldest month in Wakulla County, but camellias can provide a colorful hint of blooms to come in a few months.
To learn more about camellias in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/